Missouri women's basketball standout has a soft side

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:44 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 26, 2010

COLUMBIA— Practice just got over and Jessra Johnson is standing in the hallway outside the women’s locker room. The walls are lined with framed NBA jerseys of past Missouri stars such as Kareem Rush, Keyon Dooling and Linas Kleiza. Johnson, the Missouri women’s basketball team's leading scorer, stands with her hands in the pockets of a gray and gold Missouri warm-up suit, nonchalantly answering questions. The soft-spoken senior forward’s face is nearly expressionless.

With her quiet demeanor, Johnson can sometimes come off as aloof. But that is the farthest thing from the truth.

“I’m actually a nice person,” Johnson said.

Opponents might not think so. She leads the team with 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. In the past two games, arguably the most important to date, a one-point loss to then-No. 13 Oklahoma and an eight-point victory over then-No. 10 Baylor, Jessra Johnson stood out as usual. She was the leading scorer against the Sooners with 18 points, and she also led the team with 19 against the Bears, including a crucial three-point play in the final minutes.

Her coach and teammates point to other qualities, though.

“She has a great care for people,” Missouri coach Cindy Stein said. “She can be very sensitive, which a lot of people don’t see very much.”

For starters, Johnson has a spiritual side. Johnson’s favorite of her six tattoos displays a passage from Philippians 4:13 down her left forearm. It reads, “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.”

“It’s a motivator,” Johnson said. “Because playing college basketball, you get down on yourself a lot, and there’s some days when you want to quit but the scriptures help me out a lot.”

Her favorite activity other than basketball, getting tattoos is an integral part of Johnson’s life. Johnson even plans on getting a half-sleeve after the season is over.

“It’s just something permanent,” Johnson said. “It’s my body. Some people don’t like them. Some people do. It’s just something that I know will always be there even 30 years from now.”

Johnson also likes to spend a large portion of her free time reading novels.

“I just always go to the bookstore and go up and down the aisles and get like two or three books for a month or for our road trips and have at it,” Johnson said.

Torey Hayden’s “Beautiful Child” is Johnson’s favorite book.

“It’s about a strong woman who helps out special needs children,” Johnson said. “It’s just something I admire in a person. Anybody who works with special needs children is a great person in my eyes.”

Johnson gets her soft spot for special needs children from her mother, Denise Johnson, a special needs teacher at Fayette Elementary. Denise Johnson is also the one in charge of “Jessra’s Jungle,” a cheering section present at all Missouri home games.

“Her mom is a great inspiration in her life,” Stein said. “That’s her No. 1 soul sister right there. Her mom and her are very close. Her bringing happiness to her mom and her helping her mom out. I think that she sees what her mom does so much for other people. That has kind of passed off to Jessra.”

And while fans don’t’ get to see this side of Jessra Johnson often, her teammates are well aware of her compassion for others.

“She always talks about that (helping special needs children) and how she wants to help kids,” fellow frontcourt player Shakara Jones said. “After basketball, she would like to adopt kids. She really likes kids. She likes to help them. That does come from her mom.”

Jessra Johnson’s dream job doesn’t have to do with children though. She would like to be a food judge. After spending hours watching cooks create delicious dishes on the Food Network, Jessra Johnson likes to try her own recipes in the kitchen.

“Sometimes it turns out good,” Jessra Johnson said. “Sometimes it isn’t too good. That’s the ultimate job. Just going around the world, eat food for free.”

She makes it seem like a job she is certain to have one day.

“One thing that she always brings is a level of confidence,” Stein said. “I don’t think that’s something that’s bad. That’s something that’s a good injection into our team.”

Heading into a contest against No. 15 Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Gallagher-Iba Arena, Missouri will needs Jessra Johnson to be on top of her game.

“She’s a tough match up,” Stein said. “She brings a lot of personality to our team.”


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